The Music Instinct: Science and Song

The Music Instinct: Science and Song

Thu, 03/03/2011 - 7:00pm

Renowned performer Bobby McFerrin performs an improvisation from "Heartbeat" to demonstrate that basic elements of music - pitch, tempo, rhythm and melody - create specific reactions in our brains.

Credit: Courtesy of Trix Rosen Photography

The true power of music unfolds in this documentary hosted by Bobby McFerrin and Dr. Daniel Levitin.

While listening to music, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin asks two questions: “Where do goose bumps come from?” and “What’s going on in my brain that allows the goosebumps to happen?" Levitin leads a group of researchers as they investigate music’s fundamental physical structure; its biological, emotional and psychological impact; its brain altering and healing powers; and its role in human evolution. The Music Instinct: Science and Song airs Thursday, March 3 at 7 p.m. on WXXI World (cable 524/DT21.2).

Researchers and scientists from a variety of fields are using groundbreaking techniques that reveal startling new connections between music and the human mind, the body and the universe. Together with an array of musicians from rock and rap to jazz and classical, they are putting music under the microscope.

“The brain is teaching us about music and music is teaching us about the brain,” says Levitin.” Music allows us to understand better how the brain organizes information in the world. There are a lot of different factors that go into our emotional appreciation of music, [like] the memories we have of a particular song that we heard at a particular time in our lives.”

Renowned performers Bobby McFerrin and cellist Yo-Yo Ma describe the way musical intervals are used or combined to create melody and harmony. McFerrin and the “World Singers” sing a cappella to demonstrate that basic elements of music — pitch, tempo, rhythm and melody — create specific reactions in our brains. Yo-Yo Ma plays two notes and then five more notes and then plays different combinations that demonstrate the way musical intervals are combined to create a melody or harmony.

Percussionist Evelyn Glennie encounters music in a unique way, fundamentally as a “physical phenomenon.” Profoundly deaf, Glennie “hears” music not through her ears, but by feeling vibrations through the floor and in her body: low frequencies through her legs and feet; high sounds in particular spots on her face, neck and chest.

Rock stars Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley were asked to participate in a new experiment to reveal the difference in the brain when two people perform music together — as opposed to solo. Neuroscientists wonder how two brains interact, since music is essentially a social activity. Cocker was asked to enter a fMRI machine, while Hawley played his guitar in the room. When the scan was analyzed, it showed a measurable difference in brain activity when Cocker sang alone compared to when he sang with Hawley playing guitar. During the duet, Cocker’s brain was more active in areas for phrasing and coordinating music as well as cognitive and emotional interaction.

Research also shows that music has enormous potential to help explore the complexities of human brain function. For example, there’s a strong connection between the auditory and motor regions of the brain, and music seems to engage the motor system in a way that other modalities do not. People with motor disorders like Parkinson’s disease have improved their ability to walk while listening to a rhythm track, and stroke patients who have trouble with speech show signs of improvement when they receive music therapy. And there’s new evidence that music can actually change the physical structure of the brain — a fact that has critical implications for both education and medicine. One thing is clear, proven and agreed upon: Music has a profound capacity to influence and alter the human experience.